Moral Relativism v. Moral Objectivism: A Primer

This week, I’d like to touch on two terms that come up quite often during religiously-oriented debates: moral relativism and moral objectivism. I will highlight the basic characteristics of moral objectivism and moral relativism and the importance of the differences between these two meta-ethical concepts. I think this is important as understanding these terms more fully can better equip someone to deal with common objections and criticisms to secular morality and ethics.

Moral Objectivism

Moral objectivism, also referred to as moral realism, states that the truth value of a given moral proposition is determined by objective facts about the world (reality) and this truth is independent of subjective opinion regarding that proposition. In other words, there are correct answers to moral questions that do not depend on any person’s opinion of the matter. This is the position generally held by religious persons, as they can point to the teachings of their faith as the objective moral facts by which moral propositions can be judged true or false. For example, if you were to ask your average Christian whether or not it was moral to covet his neighbor’s wife, he would point to the commandment in the Bible that says, “No, this is not morally permissible”. He has an objective standard against which moral claims can be weighed and their truth value determined.

This is not to say that only religious people hold to moral objectivism/realism. Many philosophers have developed systems that fall under this same label. Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher, developed a deontological (duty or rule based) moral philosophy. Under this system, one judges whether a moral sentence is true or false against the Categorical Imperative (which I will shorten to CI). The CI is generally formulated in three ways, which Kant considered equivocal:

  1. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
  2. Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
  3. Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.*

Any moral proposition we come up with can be determined either true or false by seeing if it adheres to the CI. If not, then it is false; if it does, then it is true.

To revisit the previous example, consider coveting thy neighbor’s wife in light of the three formulations of the CI. Would you want coveting of wives to made universal law? You cannot say yes, according to Kant, because if this were the case then the very notion of monogamous marriage would be fatally undermined because everyone would be aiming to cheat! You would also be treating those wives as “ends”, or means to your sexual satisfaction, which violates the second formulation. As you can see, moral objectivism’s ability to ignore opinion and point to moral facts is a powerful trait.

Moral Relativism

The flip side of this moral coin is moral relativism. This states that there are no truly objective moral facts against which moral propositions can be judged either true or false. This is not to say that there are no standards against which people make moral judgments, but rather that none of those standards holds precedence over the others. Because we are not discussing particular moral claims but rather the primacy of moral systems, this makes moral relativism (like moral objectivism) a meta-ethical philosophy. It makes claims about ethical systems of belief, not the particulars of those philosophies.

This matters because it means a moral relativist can say that there are moral truths, but only relative to a given standard. For instance, in current Western culture it is considered grossly immoral to eat the flesh of human beings. If someone were to ask you if it would be wrong for them to eat a human being, you can say that it is wrong, but only wrong in light of this moral system of norms. Swing south to New Guinea and we have examples of people that ritually consume the flesh of their dead. Relative to their moral norms, this is not an immoral act.

Moral relativism is useful because it accounts for the great differences between the moral norms of the various cultures around the world. It can also explain why the morals of a given culture can shift over time or in light of certain important events. We can look back today at slavery and see that evil for what it is, but there were millions of people in the preceding centuries who thought nothing of it. Moral relativism also avoids the tricky problem of determining which objective standard we are supposed to be using when judging moral propositions, something that moral objectivism is obliged to do.

Common Objections

One need only look at the religions of the world to see how problematic this is for many moral objectivists. Is the Bible the standard we should be using, or the Quran, or the Book of Mormon? Or are all of these faiths deluded and we should be worshipping C’thulhu and following the dictates of the Old Ones? This is a huge issue for those who advocate for moral objectivism because it is unclear how, or if it is even possible, to determine with certainty which moral standard we should be using. As problematic as this is, keep in mind that this is not a fatal flaw for moral objectivism and moral relativism because they are are meta-ethical claims. Not knowing the particulars of a given ethical system does not preclude there is some such system even if we might not ever be able to determine which system we should be using.

Moral relativism suffers from a similar problem, but at the opposite end of the scale. Even though moral relativism does usefully accommodate the various large-scale differences between cultural ethical norms, it need not stop there. Indeed, there is not anything that in principle necessarily stops us from applying this relativism to the level of the individual, in which case each person’s moral opinion is as valid as any other person’s. This means that my disdain for adultery is not morally superior to an adulterer’s love for the same. What we have here is merely a difference of moral opinion, not one of fact; neither of us can say that the other is wrong, which implies everything is - at least in principle - morally permissible. This is obviously problematic because it can lead to a sort of moral paralysis since every moral participant is ultimately an equal to his peers, however much opinions between these peers differ from one another.

Real-World Impact

Most secularists adhere to some sort of moral relativism, though most would not be willing to grant (at least in practice) that everything is morally acceptable. This inability to determine truth values is often thrown out by moral objectivists as a serious, if not fatal flaw in moral relativism. Moral relativists often retort that the inability for moral objectivists to provide their ethical standard in an uncontroversial way is equally problematic. After all, what’s the point of claiming to hold to a standard if the choice of that standard is effectively arbitrary?

I make no claims as to which philosophical position should or will (or can) prevail -  this debate still rages in philosophical academia as fully as it does online or in the real world - but being familiar with the terms and their basic characteristics can only help when you are confronted with them. The importance of this debate between relativism and objectivism should be obvious, as it focuses on a topic we deal with daily. We are constantly called upon to make moral judgments, either for ourselves or against others, and our social cohesion seems largely dependent on our ability to do so. I hope you have found this primer useful (and maybe even informative!) and that it leaves you better equipped to tackle your intellectual opponents and the sticky moral questions we all must face.

*These interpretations were taken from the Wikipedia page for the Categorical Imperative.


Featured image by me, via MS Paint. I opted for two men fighting with silly hats - you try finding a photo that properly illustrates this stuff!


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